Johnathan Franklin's Best Landing Places to End Draft Free Fall

Tyler ConwayFeatured ColumnistApril 27, 2013

STANFORD, CA - NOVEMBER 30:  Johnathan Franklin #23 of the UCLA Bruins rushes for a twenty yard touchdown against the Stanford Cardinals in the third quarter during the Pac-12 Championship Game at Stanford Stadium on November 30, 2012 in Stanford, California. Stanford won the game 27-24. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

While all eyes are firmly planted on the precipitous falls of quarterbacks Matt Barkley and Ryan Nassib, those signal-callers aren't the only notable names shockingly still available on Day 3 of the NFL draft.

Viewed by some as the top-rated running back in the 2013 class, UCLA's Johnathan Franklin is arguably the most talented player remaining—Barkley and Nassib included. A four-year contributor at UCLA, Franklin ascended to superstardom as a senior. He rushed for 1,734 yards and 13 touchdowns, helping lead the Bruins to a berth in the Pac-12 championship game.

Known for his penchant for explosive gains, Franklin was one of the more dangerous weapons in the country. He averaged 6.1 yards per carry. breaking 20-plus-yard gains with a seeming ease while also making an impact in the passing game.

After running a 4.49-second 40-yard dash and impressing in the 60-yard shuttle drill, it seemed Franklin's reputation as the draft's most explosive running back was cemented. But 97 picks have passed, with contemporaries like Montee Ball, Eddie Lacy, Giovani Bernard and LeVeon Bell all flying off the board and Franklin being left out in the cold.

While that undoubtedly comes as a disappointment to Franklin, his plunge also presents an opportunity for teams drafting early in Round 4. Late-round running backs turning into studs has become an increasing phenomenon, and Franklin is as good of an option as any in 2013. 

With that in mind, here is a breakdown of a few teams that should look to target the UCLA product on Saturday. 


Arizona Cardinals

Heading into this week's draft festivities, its was difficult to evaluate the performance of new Cardinals general manager Steve Keim. Other than the well-noted and semi-controversial acquisition of quarterback Carson Palmer, Keim has seemed to be doing the bidding of head coach Bruce Arians—mainly by grabbing players familiar with his system.

Rashard Mendenhall and Drew Stanton headlined the group of pre-Arizona proteges brought in by the Cardinals this offseason, and they juxtaposed those moves by cutting roster stalwarts Beanie Wells and Adrian Wilson. Keim had essentially made a bunch of relatively minor lateral moves to make his coach happy, but there were questions about whether it made the 2013 Cardinals any better.

The tune has changed at Radio City Music Hall. Landing valued talents at premium positions, the Cardinals head into Day 3 with a future All-Pro guard in Jonathan Cooper, a starting middle linebacker in Kevin Minter and the draft's biggest boom-or-bust talent in Tyrann Mathieu.

There were no unnecessary reaches or players passed by who could have better fit with Arizona's needs; Keim's first draft as a general manager is well on its way to passing with flying colors.

If Keim wants to land a coveted 4.0 GPA for the 2013 draft, though, he should consider stealing Franklin at No. 103. The Cardinals are the first team on the board Saturday with a glaring need at running back, and Franklin's skill set would provide a thunder-and-lightning dynamic with the newly acquired Mendenhall.

A four-year Pac-12 standout, Franklin is the type of dynamic playmaker that was missing on Arizona's anemic offense last season. His propensity for breaking off long gains made him an ascending superstar in 2012 with the Bruins, reeling off massive performances even against top-flight defenses like Stanford. 

Without a true running back of the future on-roster—Mendenhall is replacement-level at best—Franklin would be an ideal pickup, especially at this late juncture. 


St. Louis Rams

Even if the Rams are unable to land Franklin with their fourth-round pick (No. 113 overall), quarterback Sam Bradford has little reason to complain. St. Louis ostensibly came into the 2013 draft with one express purpose—get Bradford weapons—and team management did just that at any means necessary.

The Rams moved up from No. 16 to No. 8 in the first round to land West Virginia wide receiver Tavon Austin. A special teams marvel, speedster and underrated route-runner, Austin was arguably the most dynamic player in this class. His unique skill set should make him St. Louis' answer to Percy Harvin, who was acquired by the division rival Seahawks earlier this offseason.

Only the Rams weren't done. They added Austin's college teammate Stedman Bailey, another gnome-sized receiver, with their second third-round pick (No. 92 overall). While Bailey isn't as highly touted as Austin nor did he perform as dynamically at the combine, he was the more productive wide receiver in college. 

With Austin and Bailey in the fold and the promising Chris Givens returning next season, Bradford has a trio of burgeoning young receivers. His weapons on the outside have gone from dreadful to promising all within the span of 24 hours, something that should help determine the former top pick's status going forward. 

All that's missing for St. Louis is a franchise running back. Lineup stalwart Steven Jackson departed this offseason for Atlanta, leaving the gaping hole of a decade's worth of strong performances in his wake. Late-round steal Daryl Richardson is pegged to take on Jackson's role at the moment, but it remains to be seen whether he can handle a starter's workload.

The Rams would like to add another late-round back to pair with Richardson and would probably like to contrast him with a bulkier runner. Franklin is by no means bulky—his 5'10" and 205 pound frame is only slightly bigger than Richardson—but sometimes the potential of a player outweighs his superficial need.

On about every measurable basis, Franklin is already the superior runner. He's a three-down back with explosiveness and a surprising adeptness at handling pass protection. A name like Marcus Lattimore might be tempting, but Franklin is the surer bet.


Indianapolis Colts

With a relative lack of selections at Radio City Music Hall, the Colts have done what they could to plug up their roster's biggest need areas. Bjoern Werner is an active defensive end who has the power and size to shift inside if needed. The Florida State product has an active motor and should instantly bolster Indianapolis' anemic run defense. 

And while they were put in a difficult position by not having a second-round choice, former Illinois guard Hugh Thornton was a passable choice at No. 86. Interior linemen are never the players who make the biggest splashes with the audience—neither casual nor hardcore—but Thornton might be able to step into the starting lineup Week 1. 

Grabbing instant contributors will again be the name of the game for Indianapolis on Saturday. The Colts are without their fifth-round pick having sent it to San Francisco, a happenstance which leaves them with only four total picks remaining—just one coming before Round 6.

That means when Indianapolis gets put on the clock at No. 121, it's going to need to grab the player atop their draft board—regardless of position or value.

Running back certainly wasn't the biggest need on Indianapolis' draft board coming into this week. Vick Ballard and Donald Brown are two perfectly reasonable NFL running backs. They are, for lack of better terms, bastions of competency.

If you haven't noticed, that's just a nice way of saying they're mediocre. The Colts averaged a dreadful 3.8 yards per attempt last season, as neither Ballard nor Brown could break the four yards per carry barrier. Their long of 26 yards was the worst in the entire league, which is both an indictment on the team's current lack of explosion at that spot and its Swiss cheese offensive line.

Thornton is a strong run blocker and should be the first piece in helping Indy's schemes, but the Colts still need a back with high upside. It's possible they look at the landscape and realize their needs at other positions are just too great to take a risk on Franklin. 

But if general manager Ryan Grigson is willing to eschew needs for a possible star, he could land the steal of the draft.